Yoga Has a Diversity Problem—Black-Owned Studios Are Changing That

Jasmine Bacon
·5 min read

In 2019 I went through a series of events that left me depressed. I decided to part ways with a guy that I was dating as I watched as everyone around me seem to have mature and thriving relationships. I was laid off from my job and I couldn’t see a glimmer of hope that I’d find something better. I felt isolated. Therapy helped; I’d leave on a natural high. But by the next day, I was back in a bad mental place. I needed more, so I started seeking more tools. That’s when I found a Black-owned Yoga studio in Atlanta and everything changed.

Yoga has been part of my wellness routine for the past five years, but it hasn’t always felt like a safe space. There were multiple instances where I felt physically out of place. I would get lingering stares while in certain poses, my body not like the others yogis’ bodies. The arch in my back and the curves in my hips made me stand out. This happened over and over, but my breaking point was when I was called out by a White yoga instructor because she thought I was sticking my butt out too much to be doing the pose properly. I have a deep natural arch in my back that makes it difficult for me to tuck my bottom in—being called out in a space that was supposed to be inclusive was so disheartening.

Yoga was built by women of color—the practice originated over 2,500 years ago in India—but it’s been heavily whitewashed. Since coming to the United States in the 1920s, yoga has become a brand, given the glossy Instagram treatment to the point that it’s become synonymous with thin white women in expensive leggings posing on a beach. I’m certainly not the only Black woman who can recall feeling out of place in predominantly white yoga spaces. “Oftentimes I feel othered,” says Kaysha Cranon, a 36-year-old woman in Atlanta. “Even if there are ‘nice’ white people who are going out of their way to be accommodating or welcoming, it has an othering affect when they want to touch my hair, talk about how they have an ‘Afro’ after a sweaty class, or watch me intently to make sure I ‘get it.’”

Being called out in a space that was supposed to be inclusive was so disheartening.

Diverse bodies and voices in the yoga space matter. Representation is important. “Seeing someone who looks like you in a place you want to be is inspiring,” says Ashlee Ansah, a 32-year-old Atlanta woman. In all my years of yoga, I’d never felt like I was a part of a community until I began practicing in a Black-owned studio—Level3 Yoga in Atlanta. It was everything that I didn’t realize I needed. The energy in the room felt different. I was able to have relatable conversations that were so much more than the awkward small talk that I had gotten accustomed to having at other yoga classes. I felt as though I found my tribe. I would leave the class feeling rejuvenated and with a level head—it was the tool to conquer the mental pain I was going through that I’d been looking for.

“The elements of traditional yoga classes didn’t feel authentic to me,” says Audrey Cash, founder of Level3 Yoga. “As yoga began to change my life, I needed to find more ways to make the practice my own—once I started using hip-hop playlists and began creating twerk yoga classes, yoga became more personal for me. That is ultimately what I believe is the purpose of yoga: to create a mindfulness practice that is rooted in our authenticity so that we can become better versions of ourselves.”

Level3’s classes are rooted in Black culture, but the studio has a diverse group of yogis. Our race connected some of us, but the overwhelming acceptance that we all had for each other is what really bonded us—and that gave me more hope than I’d felt in months.

After my first visit to Level3 Yoga, I immediately knew that I would begin incorporating Black-owned studios and Black yoga instructors into my routine going forward. But finding those spaces wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be; white-owned studios were everywhere, but locating Black-owned studios required more leg work to find. So when I found an inclusive studio—Yoga With Jaimee, Vinyl and Vinyasa, Seviin Yoga—I made a note, slowly building my own database.

It started off with my creating a spreadsheet of Black-owned studios located in the Atlanta area—when I mentioned it to friends, they were excited and many of them wanted to know where they could find online options or studios in their cities. Before I knew it I had a massive spreadsheet of diverse yoga options. This data led to the development of the OM + Essence app—a yoga directory that helps Black women find Black-owned yoga studios and Black yoga instructors. The ultimate goal for this app is to connect Black women with inclusive wellness resources that allow them to feel empowered.

“It is important to practice yoga in diverse spaces because representation matters,” says Keisha Brown, a 35-year-old woman in Tennessee. “Whether through the music chosen or the language and examples used to teach, having those cultural connections allows one to feel seen, feel safe, and realize the full benefits of yoga.”

Jasmine Bacon is a digital marketer and the founder of OM + Essence.

Originally Appeared on Glamour